Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – We hear a lot about attorneys’ fees in Florida’s workers’ compensation system, but what about the pay for the judges deciding cases? They say their pay has been generally stagnant for the last decade.
The situation has resulted in fewer attorneys applying for judicial openings, in some cases leaving vacancies unfilled for long periods. Their income used to be tied to that of other judges, until major reforms were implemented in 1994. They say it’s time to change it back.
“We’re a very small subset,” said David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. “In the First Judicial Circuit there are 32 judges. In our workers’ compensation system there are 31 judges for the whole state.”
What used to be part-time positions were changed to fulltime in 1989. The salaries for the OJCC judges were tied to those of Circuit Court judges. But legislative reforms in 1994 removed the ‘tie-in’ provision.
“In 1989-90, the salary of a Florida Judge of Compensation Claims was $79,359. That salary was increased thereafter periodically, even after the ‘tie in’ was removed from chapter 440 in 1994,” according to the 2017-2018 OJCC Annual Report. “However, the salary has markedly failed to keep pace with inflation since the early 2000s. The JCC salary, in actual purchasing power, has diminished over $27,000 compared to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).”
Looking at the current salary levels of state judges shows the effect on those in the workers’ compensation system.
- $160,688 – Circuit Court judges.
- $151,822 – County Court judges
- $124,564 – Judges of Compensation Claims
“There is no justification for the serious and widening pay gap between Florida Judges of Compensation Claims and the remainder of Florida’s judges,” the annual Report said. “It is suggested that the most expedient method of correcting the salary deterioration would be a statutory tie-in similar to that previously removed in 1994.”
The income level is not the only difference, the JCCs point out; there are also differences in retirement benefits. Pensions for other judges are based on 3-percent of salary; however the JCC retirement benefit is based on 2-percent of salary. The difference results in retirement benefits for Circuit Court judges that are “roughly double” that for workers’ compensation judges.
In comparing two judges each appointed at the end of 2017 and each serving for 8 years with no pay increases, the Circuit Judge’s retirement would be $39,565.12, while the JCC’s would be $19,930.24.
“Compensation has not kept pace with inflation, has become increasingly inadequate compared to other judges, and when coupled with a less generous retirement calculation is no longer adequate to encourage the application of the best and brightest,” the report said.
“I used to get 8 or 10 applicants for a position, now we’re getting two or three,” Langham said. “Some really good folks are applying, but instead of 6 of 8, it’s 3 or 4.”
Langham points out that workers’ compensation judges make decisions on cases with thresholds of tens-of-thousands to millions of dollars. Also, they need to be cognizant of the complexities of the workers’ compensation system.
“It’s very rule- and regulatory-focused, so we really need people who understand and really enjoy workers’ compensation,” he said. “I think we’d be better served if the salary was more commensurate with the responsibilities of the position.”
The appointment process requires at least three applicants for any vacancy. That’s starting to cause problems, for example, when only one applicant applied for an open judgeship in Gainesville in 2017.
“The system impact is in the delays that are caused,” Langham said. “We’ve had periods where, because there were not a lot of applicants, there were vacant judgeships for a period of time before we could get enough candidates to send to the governor.”
Among the arguments the OJCC is making in support of higher pay for the judges is the fact that the money comes directly from the Workers’ Compensation Administrative Trust Fund, which is funded entirely by assessments on workers’ compensation premiums and contributions by self-insured employers. “No general revenue is contributed to the WCATF,” the Annual Report said. “A salary increase in the OJCC would have no impact on general revenue expenditures.”
That fact represents the only difference between the proposed legislation, HB 795 and SB 780. Langham said he included language about the salaries being paid out of the Trust Fund, even though it was already included from the Annual Report.
“The House sponsor said it was redundant [to reiterate the language],” he said. “I don’t disagree, but time and again we hear that in the state government ‘the budget is tight, resources are low this year,’ So I had included that language about the Trust Fund as a reassurance, a reminder to the Legislature that whatever money you allocate for us won’t affect the state budget. Either one of the bills, if we get them passed, will do the job.”